Helen Buckley Nugent
WAVES, 7th Regiment
World War II (1943 – 1945)
Helen Buckley Nugent, 91, of Greenbrae, California is proud to have served her country during World War II. According to Nugent, she was a part of the “giving generation”. Today’s younger generation should know more about World War II, how society contributed to the war effort, and how the U.S. performed as a whole, claims Nugent. Nugent feels strongly that today’s society is a “take society and during World War II, everybody was giving”. These words of wisdom are just one of the reasons that Nugent embodies patriotism. At 91, Nugent is still going strong and an active member of veteran organizations.
Helen Buckley was born on August 11, 1920 in New York City, New York. She grew up in New York and completed her high school education. She married Robert Nugent and settled in New York. As a young woman, Nugent was employed as an executive secretary with the Continental Can Company in New York. After Nugent’s husband joined the Army and was sent overseas to the Pacific, Nugent spent her free time selling war bonds at rallies, during silent drills in the armories, and in night clubs in the evening. “During World War II, everybody wanted to give and not take”, claims Nugent. She emphasized that “everyone would do everything they could to assist”. After seeing recruitment posters for the Navy throughout New York, Nugent decided in 1943 that she wasn’t doing enough for the war effort and enlisted. Nugent stated that by enlisting “she felt she was contributing to something.” After the attacks at Pearl Harbor, Nugent explained that “Americans were aghast beyond belief, and surprised that anyone could attack us like the Japanese did”.
In June 1943, Nugent enlisted in the Navy. She was assigned to the 7th regiment of WAVES, Women Accepted For Voluntary Emergency Services. The WAVES were a World War II-era division of the U.S. Navy that consisted entirely of women. The word “emergency” implied that the acceptance of women was due to the unusual circumstances of the war. Women served stateside so men could be released to serve overseas. It was understood that at the end of the war, the women would not be allowed to continue in Navy careers. Nugent’s husband was very proud of her for enlisting in the Navy. In fact, her entire family was proud. Her mother even kept a sign in the front window announcing that Nugent was in the military. Nugent chose to enlist in the Navy, as opposed to another branch of the military, because “frankly, the uniforms were outstanding and the gals looked so proud and trim in uniform…. I just decided that I would look just like that.”
After enlisting, Nugent was sent to basic training for three weeks at Hunter College in New York. According to Nugent, it was a very unusual experience. She was housed in a typical boot camp style dorm with double decker bunk beds with lights out a 9 pm. The women were trained by Marines, taught to march and took all sorts of classes. The women also took aptitude tests to be placed in the right position. Nugent trained only with women and ate and slept with the women. At no time did Nugent feel, as a woman, that she was harassed or mistreated during basic training. Nugent felt her training was excellent. She went on to lead a platoon of ladies in marching with their head up, chins held high, shoulders back in typical military stance. During basic training, Nugent was taught “the pride in the Navy, what the woman were expected to reflect in their service, and to not bring disgrace in any way to the Navy or their service”. At the conclusion of basic training, Nugent was initially assigned to Norman, Oklahoma as a machinists mate. Nugent reminded her superior that, despite her high test scores in mechanical abilities; she had previously been an executive secretary with the Continental Can Company. Nugent explained that she would be more valuable in that capacity to the Navy. It was determined that Nugent would be a Yeoman. Overall, Nugent’s basic training experience was good. She was excited about it. It was a whole new learning experience and having never been associated with the military, Nugent felt it was all very exciting. Nugent was a perfectionist in everything she did. She claimed there was a lot to learn in the Navy and she wanted perfection.
From basic training in New York, Nugent was sent by train to Lambert Airfield NAS in St. Louis, Missouri for her assignment. Initially, Nugent was just a Seaman. Her basic duties involved being assigned to a desk in the General Office at Lambert Field. For the first three weeks, Nugent was trained by a young Yeoman. After three weeks, the Yeoman shipped out overseas. Her job was to replace the Yeoman and free him for overseas service. While in the General Office, Nugent worked under the Chief Yeoman doing secretarial work. There were always people coming through the base that required registration. Eventually, Nugent would earn her stripes as Yeoman 3rd Class and later, Yeoman 1st Class. Once Nugent became a Yeoman 2nd class, she was assigned to assist Commanding Officer Premo and executive Officer Benedict. For the remainder of her assignment, Nugent was considered the equivalent of the executive secretary of Commander Premo. Nugent was the eyes and ears of the base and knew everything going on. When asked if there was any mistreatment of the women on base, Nugent replied no since she would have known. Any complaint would have been brought to her attention. Everything in the General Office evolved around the orders of the Commanding Officer and Executive Officer. In addition, Nugent spent much of her time handling court martials and national reports. According to Nugent, she was excited to learn it all in the General Office. She wanted to be involved in all the activities and was absorbed into all weekly activities and routines of the base. Nugent also felt that Commander Primo was an absolutely generous man. He understood that they were women and never over demanded of their abilities. He was always complementary to all of the women. Commander Premo was very proud of them and pleased at their marching abilities and at captain inspections on Saturday mornings.
While assigned to Lambert Field, Nugent and the other WAVES were housed in the WAVES barracks. Initially there were only 26 women. Eventually, that number would grow to over 200 women with the women sleeping in stacked bunks. Nugent thought the food was very good; she even gained weight. For entertainment, Nugent bowled on base and in town. She even brought her own bowling ball with her to St. Louis. After her initial assignment, Nugent did not receive additional training other than to study for her Yeoman stripes. The Chief Petty Officer wanted the women to proceed, enlarge their knowledge, and seek every promotion available to them. Overall, Nugent felt the women were generally accepted at Lambert Field. The men just accepted them and even the gals working on the planes and engines accepted them. The women also received the same pay as the men for the same work.
Nugent loved her position as a Yeoman First class. Nugent professed to always being a very active and ambitious person. Nugent never had the time to think about low morale. She was always busy. According to Nugent, “you went to work at 8am and worked until 5pm. Activity was tremendous and there was never a gap but for your one hour lunch break”. Nugent felt, “this was a challenge. It was great to take the challenge and meet the requirements and proceed on to the next rate”. All the WAVES at Lambert Field were proud of their service, work, how they were accepted and the base in general. Nugent generally liked and respected her fellow personnel. Nugent stated that we were at war and represented the Navy. “Everyone felt the same as I did. This was a good job, there was a challenge there and we accomplished it.”
One of the more interesting stories Nugent recalls from her service, is the time she caught a troop transport plane home to New York for leave. Nugent was given a parachute and was told to keep it on her person at all times. Nugent took this pledge to heart and took it everywhere. On the return home, Nugent had to take a train which was sidetracked numerous times. She lugged the parachute through every stop and was able to return it in good condition to Lambert Field. Another strong memory for Nugent was the time her husband sent her two dozen roses for their anniversary. Nugent had no place to put the roses, so she put them on a table in the center aisle of the barracks. During inspection, the Captain came through and noticed the flowers. Instead of reprimanding Nugent, he congratulated her on her anniversary. According to Nugent, this was totally against Navy regulations. Nugent was thankful that the Captain ignored the infraction and she and the other women were able to enjoy the flowers.
Nugent was discharged from the Navy on October 16, 1945. Nugent had to wait for the discharge of her husband before she could be released since she did not have enough points for her own discharge. Nugent felt her arrival home was just great. She and her husband had arrived home safely and neither suffered any injuries as the result of their service. Nugent received the World War II Victory medal and an American Campaign medal for her service during World War II. After arriving home, Nugent began to look for a job. Her old WAVE uniform came in handy. Nugent replaced the lining of the suit, removed the brass buttons and insignia and made it into a standard suit. It was this sharp suit that inspired her to join WAVES in the first place. It is probably what helped her get her old position back at the Continental Can Company. Nugent worked as an executive secretary for the company in New York until she had her first child.
Today, Nugent is still active with WAVES National, a veteran organization for women of the Sea Services. Nugent is also active in the local Redwood Empire Chapter of Waves, Unit #77. Nugent has even served as President of this local chapter. Her work with WAVES National and the local chapter involves attending conventions, local charity work, marching in parades, participating in civic events, collecting school supplies for students in Iraq, and the organization of all female veteran luncheons held throughout the U.S. Nugent feels that her sacrifice in serving during World War II was justified. Nugent contributed, that is what she wanted to do. Nugent is proud that she contributed to the effort by releasing a man for service overseas. Nugent enjoyed every moment of her service. She was not scared nor did she find it difficult. Nugent claims, “to like a challenge. I am an ambitious person, I like accomplishments and I do not have any negative thoughts about my service”. Nugent, however, did not feel that her experience in the Navy changed her or her outlook on life. “It was a great experience. I felt sorry for the ladies that never did it. It was available to anyone. It was satisfying”, Nugent exclaimed. Nugent would like future generations to realize that at the time, the 1940s, women did not contribute much. When she joined WAVES, she and the other women of her generation started the movement for women to contribute to society and their own abilities. Today the world has changed. Women are accepted much more so. The women in the military today perform a lot of outstanding things.
Nugent advised that all young men and women pursuing a career in the military should remember that there are so many opportunities today in the military. Nugent further advised, “if they are interested, they should investigate and find what their ambition is aimed for”. These young men and women can find in any of the service areas, a duty that would satisfy their needs and wants, in order to perform a specific duty and to attain a certain achievement. In closing, Nugent recommended that if you have an ambition; pursue it to all degrees whether it is in the military or in civilian life. According to Helen Nugent, “there are opportunities everywhere, you have to just go and make the best of them, or you will lose your chance”. Sound advice from an ambitious patriot!
Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on June 13, 2011